“What Kind of Life is This?” The Struggle for Survival in Kayseri

Imagine you are taking a leisurely stroll through a farmer’s market, examining the produce at different fruit stands. Suddenly you hear a stranger behind you screaming. You look back and see that a middle-aged man is pointing his finger at you and shouting to the crowd: "This whore is a lesbian. You can screw her for 2 dollars."

This is what happened a few days ago to Leila (not her real name), a very attractive lesbian refugee from Iran who has been in Kayseri for the last year. Leila used to be a nurse at a hospital in Iran. Then her male colleagues found out about her sexual orientation. Sexual harassment and blackmail followed: men asked her to have sex with them and threatened to report her "sexual perversion" to government or hospital officials if she refused. Life became unbearable. Leila, who also faced harassment from her neighbors, decided that she could no longer live in Iran.

Now Leila lives a modest life in Turkey. She spends 12 hours a day, 6 days a week washing dishes at a wedding reception hall. She told me that after 16 months of living in exile in this conservative community, she has lost her morale: "There are days I don't want to get out of bed. I just want to die...What kind of life is this? I have a university degree, but now I’m working illegally for hours on end, minding my business and people still stop me on the street and harass me. What have I done to deserve this cruel punishment?"

Leila is so depressed that she often cries at work. Her Turkish colleagues try to comfort her. But Leila can’t tell them about her problems. She knows that as soon as she tells them about her sexual orientation, her co-workers will stop caring about her and her boss will likely ask her to leave. So instead she responds to their inquiries by describing a paralyzed husband who is dying at home. Lying flat-out about the most important part of her identity bothers Leila to no end: "I fled Iran because people there were judgmental and I had to constantly lie about who I am. Now here I am: a refugee in another prejudiced community, working like crazy to make minimum wage, and telling lies again to protect myself... Is this life worth living?"

Leila left Iran with Sima (not her real name), another lesbian friend. Both women are in their early 30's. Sima's own story is harrowing. Her father caught her with a girlfriend when she was in high school, and in punishment forbade her to go to school. Instead, since her teenage years, Sima has supported herself by working. Her family forced her into a heterosexual marriage, which ended in divorce. On the verge of being forced into a second marriage, Sima couldn't take it any more. She fled to Turkey. Now in Kayseri, she works 10 hours days as a day laborer for the meager sum of 10 dollars a day. "I can't even get sick,” she says. “One doctor's visit will cost me a full month's worth of my salary. Who will pay the rent then?"

Sima considers herself lucky to have escaped Iran: "I know lesbians who have no financial means to get out of that hell hole. Their families beat them up, their husbands abuse them, and their neighbors joke about their appearance…. At least I managed to get my life and run."

Sima lives with two other Iranian lesbian refugees. When I arrived at their house, they had just returned from work. The water supply had been temporarily cut off and they kept apologizing for not having water to make tea for me.

Sima and Leila's stories touched me. I told them I wanted to write about them. Leila thought for a few seconds and said: "I hope people who read your story don't feel sorry for us. We don't want anybody's pity. I have worked all my life to make it on my own.... We are capable people.... All I am asking is to be treated fairly. Is there anywhere on the planet where people would respect me as a human being, and not judge me on my sexuality?"

Hossein Alizadeh

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